Ge Hong

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Life of Ge Hong

Ge Hong, whose courtesy name was 'The Young River' (Zhichuan) and was nicknamed 'The Master Who Embraces Simplicity ( 抱朴子 Baopuzi ), was a famous Daoist figure of the Eastern Jin dynasty (AD 317-420). A native of Jurong, Dangyang, and the grandson of Immortal Elder Ge ( 葛仙翁 Gexianweng ) Xuan's brother, he was called 'The Younger Immortal Elder Ge' ( 小仙翁 Xiaoxianweng ) by the common people. Ge Hong came from an official family living near the South banks of the Yangtze River. In his early youth, his father passed away and from then on, the family fortunes declined and the family became poor. Yet Ge Hong was intelligent and addicted to study. He always cut firewood on hills and bartered them for paper and writing brushes. Having grown up, he acquired wide knowledge about the Confucian classics, history, and the theories of the various schools of thought, and he was especially renowned for his study of the Confucian school. Ge Hong had a placid temperament. He was not fond of high position and great wealth, but loved gymnastic and cultivation techniques for Attaining immortality. He claimed that he had been keen on these techniques since early youth, and was never afraid of dangers or distance when he sought advice from teachers. Later, he learned secret alchemy from Zheng Yin and was thought highly of by him. Ge Hong experienced the chaos of war and the ups and downs of life, and keenly realized that fame and gain are like spring flowers, which wither and fall in an instant. Hence he kept himself aloof from current affairs and became bent on the Dao of Song and Qiao, following a dietetic regimen ( 服食 Fushi ), cultivating his nature ( 養性 Yangxing ), and practicing the mysterious silence. He followed Bao Liang and continued practicing Daoist techniques, and was regarded quite highly by Bao. Finally, Ge Hong moved to Luofu Mountain, cultivating his life ( 養生 Yangsheng ) and practicing Dao ( 修道 Xiudao ). He never stopped writing, and kept making elixirs till his death.

Theories on Daoism

Ge Hong carried on and developed the Immortalist theories of early Daoism. In the Inner Book of the Master Who Embraces Simplicity ( 抱朴子內篇 Baopuzi Neipian ), he thoroughly summarized the theories on Immortals and the techniques to secure Immortality existing before the Jin dynasty, including Keeping to Oneness ( 守一 Shouyi ), Breath Dirigation ( 行氣 Xingqi ), Gymnastics ( 導引 Daoyin ), Sexual Arts ( 房中術 Fangzhong Shu ), and the like. He emphasized that those who seek immortality must have the fundamental virtues of loyalty, piety, gentleness, obedience, benevolence and righteousness, and that longevity couldn't be secured simply by practising techniques without cultivation of virtues. He demanded that followers should follow Daoist commandments strictly. Ge Hong held that one should practise Nourishing Life ( 養生 Yangsheng ) and the arts of Immortality for the inner life, and practise the Confucian way for the outer, social life. He also held that one's writings should attach importance both to morality and to behavior, and that writing should contribute to enlightenment. Moreover, in the Inner Book of the Master Who Embraces Simplicity, Ge Hong summarized the achievements of alchemy prior to the Jin Dynasty and recorded a large number of ancient scriptures of alchemy and methods of alchemical fabrication of elixirs. This exerted a significant influence on the later development of alchemy.

Ge Hong and medical science and pharmacognosy

Ge Hong had a good command of medicine and pharmacognosy. He maintained that Daoist priests should study medical skills, which would not only be conducive to their own longevity and Attaining of Immortality ( 成仙 Chengxian ), but also be beneficial to mankind. In his books on medicine such as Prescriptions for Emergencies after the Pulse-taking ( 肘後備急方 Zhouhou Beiji Fang ), Prescriptions for Rescuing the Dying after the Pulse-taking ( 肘後救卒方 Zhou Jiuzu Fang ), Prescriptions from the Golden Cabinet ( 金匱藥方 Jingui Yaofang ) and Prescriptions from the Jade Box ( 玉函方 Yuhan Fang ), Ge Hong preserved many early Chinese medical classics and recorded several folk prescriptions that were frequently used for healing. Among his records was the earliest prescription for the treatment of smallpox in medical history. Furthermore, Ge Hong's knowledge of tubercular contagious disease was acquired more than 1,000 years earlier than in the West. Ge Hong's detailed accounts and explanations of the properties and functions of many medical plants in the section 'Elixirs for Attaining Immortality' in the Inner Book of the Master Who Embraces Simplicity had great influence on the development of the national medical science and pharmacognosy of later ages.